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SSFC Spotlight: Matt Turner makes national team debut

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The goalkeeper reaches another development milestone.

SOCCER: JAN 31 USA v Trinidad & Tobago Photo by Andrew Bershaw/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

While some may view the starting goalkeeper position as locked down for the next decade by the capable Zack Steffen, there is always room for competition. Times change, injuries happen, and development progresses up or down in a maddeningly unpredictable way. Solid depth is required, with the backup ready to be called upon with little warning. Matt Turner, an emerging potential challenger, is on the rise, recently making his national team debut and continuing his rapid growth.

United States Men’s National Team head coach Gregg Berhalter showed confidence in the uncapped player, naming him the starter prior to the friendly against Trinidad and Tobago last weekend. Turner previously received call-ups during 2019 CONCACAF Nations League matches, but did not play. In a 7-0 romp over the Soca Warriors, he made one save, a fantastic penalty stop in the 66th minute to deny Alvin Jones, and was flawless in possession, completing 16 out of 16 passes.

“I think he did a great job,” said Berhalter after the match. “There were times when he was under pressure. It was great that guys were opening up, and Matt made the right decision every single time, and that’s all you can ask for.”

Turner’s performance did not require a lot of action, but he was able to step up in a key moment to preserve the shutout. The ability to stay focused is an important trait for a goalkeeper, mustering confidence and composure after long periods of monotonous inactivity. In a similar vein, his indirect road to the national team debut was a decade in the making, filled with stops and starts but always punctuated with underlying, natural talent.

Described as a “throwback” multi-sport athlete with a preference for baseball, the Park Ridge, New Jersey native did not focus on soccer until the age of 16. The 2010 World Cup inspired him to become more invested. “I didn’t have any formal goalkeeping training until college,” Turner told American Soccer Now. “It was mostly just relying on instincts and trying to figure things out on my own. I didn’t even take goal kicks until I was 18.”

The 6’3” goalkeeper spent four years with the Fairfield University Stags in the small-school Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference, not becoming the starter until his junior season. One summer, Turner trained at a Brazilian soccer academy, forced to deal with unfamiliar surroundings and learning a new style of play. At the conclusion of his prolific collegiate career, he was not invited to the MLS Combine and went undrafted.

Committed to a final semester of coursework at Fairfield, his career could have ended there if not for a speculative call from a local club. Prior to the 2016 season, the New England Revolution offered a preseason trial. Turner impressed and signed a deal to become the MLS club’s third-string goalkeeper.

Twice during the next two seasons, he was sent out on loan to the Richmond Kickers in the USL Championship (now USL League One). Turner made 27 appearances and notched seven shutouts. His hectic schedule involved training with the Revolution during the week, then traveling on Fridays to play with his temporary club. These early career matches were important, rapidly bridging the experience gap following his late arrival to the sport.

“It was a pretty tough year,” he told Boston.com. “But mentally I was locked in because I knew it was going to pay off. And I knew getting that experience was really going to help me in the future.”

After becoming a professional, Turner became “addicted to improving himself.” The hard work paid off, as the Revolution elevated him to the number one role in 2018 following an “excellent preseason.” He seized the opportunity, starting 27 matches. Despite a late-season return to the bench, the club was impressed with his performances.

In 2019, he was forced to fight for the starting role, not receiving playing time until 11 matches into the season. After the arrival of Bruce Arena, the position indisputably belonged to Turner. His play helped lead a turnaround in New England, becoming “a steady, calming presence” and reliable source of heroic saves in 23 total appearances. The Revolution would reach the playoffs, losing in the first round. The club rewarded the new star with a multi-year contract extension.

There were no doubts surrounding the Revolution’s goalkeeping hierarchy heading into 2020. The club’s thrived with Turner firmly established in the lineup, reaching the Eastern Conference finals. At the end of the season, he finished in second place in MLS Goalkeeper of the Year voting.

A result of these solid performances, the 26-year-old is fielding questions about a future move abroad. Despite the desire to play in Europe, Turner signed another contract extension with the Revolution due to already having several years remaining on his deal. “For me it was an easy decision to want to stay here and continue to prove myself in this league,” he said. “Regardless of whether I signed a new contract or I didn’t sign a new contract, if a European transfer was going to happen, it would take a purchase…It feels really, really good but that doesn’t take away the fact that there is a desire for me.”

Turner insists he wants to “challenge” himself with a move overseas and “see the higher level.” He recently obtained a Lithuanian passport after finding his great-grandmother’s paperwork in an attic. This fortuitous discovery could help facilitate a future move to Europe. For now, the focus is succeeding in MLS while being “a part of the growth of soccer in Boston.”

Turner is a late bloomer, still in a state of constant development. Berhalter noted his abilities had improved “night and day” in comparison to last year’s January camp. Mentor and back-up Brad Knighton described his teammate’s shot-stopping as “second to none,” along with possessing “the foundation, work ethic, and body to be a great goalkeeper.” His once-flawed distribution has become an asset, a testament to constant focus in training sessions.

Regardless of his relative newness to the sport, those around him see the potential to play at the highest level. “He’s been massive,” said Revolution goalkeeping coach Kevin Hitchcock. “A goalkeeper’s measured on big saves he makes in games… He’s been able to do that… He could play Premier League football, easy.”

Without a combination of fortuitous events, Turner may not even be playing soccer right now. His inherent talent has enabled him to take advantage of every opportunity, and now the sky is the limit, even if it is not reached until well into his 30s. Whether he chooses to stay in MLS or make the jump to Europe, the national team appears to have another reliable goalkeeper capable of stepping into the role at a moment’s notice.